Ever since Roddy Doyle wrote The Commitments in 1987 and Alan Parker filmed it in 1991, we’ve been waiting for the stage musical. Everyone – almost everyone, maybe – wants to make a soul band because soul is irresistibly sexy. And Doyle’s story makes you feel that you could do it.
It’s 1986 when young Jimmy Rabbitte forms The Commitments – “the hardest working band in the world”. His members are Dubliners from the hopeless side of town. He chooses soul because “soul is the rhythm of sex”. And they nearly make it big. Nearly, but not. What goes wrong? The vibe is too raw. They keep snogging and fighting and eventually they can’t commit. It’s a funny, heroic and rather inspiring failure.
What goes wrong at the Palace? It’s not raw enough. Characters are drawn thinly. We know too little about them to care. We’re meant to believe that they play in order to become something – something noble – instead of selling sweets or packing meat. But there’s little sense of this.
Performances are also thin. And some feel callow. Denis Grindel (as Jimmy) has been whisked out of drama school prematurely. He looks handsome, but he has to push for the charisma the part demands, at the expense of wit and truthfulness. Killian Donnelly, as Deco “the soul man” Cuffe, does an excellent Mick Jagger chicken dance and a fine rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” while scoffing chips. Yet even he lacks grit, sweat, stench. And he’s the best.
Not all the acting is bad – Donnelly and Ben Fox as the trumpeter “as old as me da” are both plausible – but most of it is demonstrative and shallow. Doyle’s novel does not lend itself to this treatment; nor does his script. Jamie Lloyd’s direction must be – at least partly – responsible.
Yet there are bright spots. Soutra Gilmour’s design, dominated by a peeling tenement block, is shabby in the right way. And most of the singing is punchy and fun.
If Dublin needed a band like The Commitments – “the saviours of soul” – in the 1980s, then surely London needs one now, if only as an antidote to The X Factor. We might also need a musical of Doyle’s debut novel. Just not this one.